Love and Assent

While reading Wendell Berry’s story collection, That Distant Land, I was struck by this description of a character named Martha Elizabeth Coulter:

She was a woman always near to smiling, sometimes to laughter. Her face, it seems, had been made to smile. It was a face that assented wholly to the being of whatever or whomever she looked at.

I don’t know whether Wendell Berry is a student of Thomas Aquinas, but that description of Martha Elizabeth as a person who “assented wholly to the being” of the people and things around her sounds like the kind of thing Aquinas would say.

That idea of assent is key to Aquinas’s understanding of love. And, as I will argue, it’s a major reason to write; in fact, assent may be the writer’s most important reason of all.

I’ll be paraphrasing and quoting from Josef Pieper, who was himself paraphrasing Aquinas. (The page numbers below refer to Faith, Hope, and Love, which collects three of Pieper’s long essays.)

Read More

On Giving an Account of What You Have Seen

I once sat next to a writer at a school concert. I knew she was a writer because she had her notebook and pen and was actually writing during the concert. She looked to be about ten or eleven, and she was essentially live-blogging the event, writing down everything she noticed. I could hardly watch the concert for looking over to see what my neighbor was writing. It was this kind of thing:

  • After the violin players are finished, some singers come up and sing a song about the red river valley.
  • Then a band comes and sings a rock and roll song. They all have glasses except for the drummer.
  • Two boys come up to play a song, but one of them forgets his guitar and has to go back to his seat and get it. Everybody laughs, but not in a mean way.

I love the fact that this young writer wasn’t waiting for something fabulous to happen before she started writing. She just gave an account of what she saw. There’s a whole worldview there: she believed that the things she saw in the world around her were sufficiently meaningful to be worth writing about. And in writing about them, she dignified those seemingly mundane events.

Read More

On the Physical Facts of Writing: Habits, Spaces, Tools

Where does writing happen? Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have said that writing happens—really happens—between the writer’s ears. I wasn’t especially interested in the physical process by which ideas get out of a writer’s head and onto a sheet of paper or onto a computer screen. 

There is a tinge of gnosticism in this view of writing as a disembodied act—and maybe more than a tinge. Of course writing is brain work. But we are more than brains on a  stick, to borrow a phrase from James K.A. Smith. Our brains exist in bodies, which exist in a temporal world, where habits shape us, inside and out. So it is exceedingly important to recruit our whole bodies to the cause of brain work. 

Read More

On the Thinginess of Things

I’ve been thinking about the word “reality.” It derives from the Latin word res, which simply means “thing.” (The word republic, for instance, comes from res + publica—the thing of the people). Etymologically speaking, reality means something like “thinginess.” A real thing is a thingish thing (which suggests that the phrase “real thing” is redundant).

What, then, is a thing? I don’t quite know what to say to that, except that I know a thing when I see one, and so do you. You can look up thing in the dictionary, but I don’t think you’ll find it very helpful.

In the absence of a good definition of a thing, allow me to highlight one important facet of thinginess: A thing must exist outside the human mind (and outside of language) in order to qualify as a thing. Consider this utterance: “Pumpkin-spice bacon frappuccino donut—is that even a thing?” The speaker is asking, “Does this concoction exist in the physical world where you and I live, or is it just a string of words, or a figment of your imagination?”

Read More

“A culture is a work of imagination”

We’re just a couple of days away from the Fourth of July here in the United States, and the approaching day have given me occasion to reflect on a line from poet Christian Wiman that I have quoted before in this space: “A culture, too, is a work of imagination.” Imagination–the kind of imagination we need–isn’t so much a matter of seeing things that aren’t real as a matter of seeing things that are truer and more real than the status quo.

Read More

Seeing What You See: On Imagery

You have probably heard me talk about the importance of inviting a reader into a scene–presenting information to your reader as closely as possible to the way she would receive information in real life. In real life, we collect information via our five senses, and then our minds go to work on that information to make judgments, have ideas, feel feelings, reach conclusions, etc. I wrote about this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit called The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment.

Imagery is the most basic and most important tool for writing that invites a reader into a scene rather than telling the reader what to think. Imagery is simply language that appeals to the five senses by depicting concrete facts.

Read More

What Love Sees Is True

My wife Lou Alice and I got married twenty-five years ago today. I won’t say we were children, but we were barely not-children, and we hardly knew what we were promising to do, but we promised anyway. Then we went home and started trying to figure out how to make a life together. I have often heard that marriage is hard work. I don’t disagree. To borrow a phrase from the philosophers, however, hard work is necessary but not sufficient. In any creative endeavor (and a marriage is a greater creative endeavor than War and Peace and the Sistine Chapel combined), the real work is to make room for grace to intervene, to have eyes to see see the deeper truth, to stay alive to the fact that a reality we didn’t make will triumph every time over the shriveled and shriveling narratives of self-absorption.

Read More

On the Impracticality of Beauty

A cynic remarked that last week’s fire at Notre Dame has turned out to be an excellent excuse for social media users to post pictures of their vacations in Paris. A less cynical interpretation is that the fire at Notre Dame prompted social media users to memorialize an encounter with a work of art and beauty that reminded them that they were living in a bigger story than they typically thought.

Read More

Painting the Alligator Green

In the book club I’m running over at Field Notes for Writers, the topic of childhood creativity came up. When you put crayons and a piece of paper in front of a small child, she knows exactly what to do with them. She doesn’t get artist’s block. She doesn’t perseverate over whether or she has enough skill or whether she’s talented or whether she has earned the right to call herself an artist. She just puts crayon to paper and gets busy.

As we get older, almost all of us lose most of that creative freedom. We grow in self-consciousness, we learn self-doubt, and our exuberance in the mere act of making dissolves as we start to compare, as we are subjected to criticism.

Read More

The Stories We Live In

Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell makes the case that vague, abstract, usually Latinate language is an important tool in the dishonest politician’s tool-belt. 

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

If you’ve read more than two or three issues of The Habit, you are probably aware of my ongoing campaign against vague, abstract language. I agree with Orwell that fuzzy, imprecise language fosters the kind of fuzzy, imprecise thought that allows the worst kind of politician to flourish. 

But lately it has occurred to me that my exhortations to clear, concrete storytelling are incomplete. If storytelling is the most effective vehicle of truth (and I believe it is), it is also, and for the same reasons, the most effective vehicle of falsehood. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. True enough. But that doesn’t mean that all clear, concrete, specific language is sincere.

Read More
Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Youtube
Consent to display content from Youtube
Vimeo
Consent to display content from Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from Google
Main Menu